18 years cake

18 Years Later…

Anyone who knows us here at freetobook will know our staff retention rate is something we are extremely proud of, so when our product lead, Eleanor, hit the 18 year mark – it wasn’t an occasion we could let pass us by. In Eleanor’s own words, here’s a look back to where it all started…

Way back in the summer of 2004 I was interviewed for a job which involved helping both travel agents and members of the public select and book hotels over the phone.  I interview terribly and the only thing I really remember is Iain trying to drill an answer out of me by constantly asking “but why” to everything I said and then me blurting out “because it’s nice to be nice!”  Maybe Iain agreed that it was nice to be nice or he could see potential within me because here I am 18 years later thinking back to that day and to what has changed over the years.   

In September 2004 we were a small team in a weird little office and our technology included a PC with one monitor, a fax machine to send bookings to travel agents, a credit card machine, which you had to queue at sometimes, and envelopes and stamps to post out hardcopies of booking confirmations with little hand-written notes.   

I’ve always been one for embracing technology and preferred using our online resources to learn about destinations and hotels instead of the books the rest of the team used. One day I logged in to check something and discovered the account had been cancelled because no one used it!   

A year later we hired our second developer – 17 years on he is still here, as our Senior Developer and good friend to all – his experience and level of knowledge is outstanding and pretty unique in the industry.  He connected systems, automated processes and made our lives a hundred times easier…it was like some sort of witchcraft to me.   

Not too long after that we stopped queuing at the credit card terminal and were able to take payments within our booking system, stopped posting out documents and emailed them instead and used our collective experiences to build great websites for various major cities into which we fed in the rates we had previously been giving customers over the phone.   Customers could now book online.  The internet was changing things fast.  The change from phone calls to the online experience meant that we had to ensure customers made the right decision on where to book without our direct influence so we started travelling out to the main European cities and visiting 40-50 hotels over a few days so that we could write our own unique content about our experiences in the city and what we thought of the hotels.  We wanted to make sure the technology didn’t replace our personal touch and knowledge. 

The next major change for us was when we decided we could cut out the wholesale suppliers on these bookings and contract rooms for ourselves.  The hotels that agreed would then update their availability and rates into a system that if you saw it today would be very familiar indeed!  We worked closely with the hotels and in the rare event of any issue for any guest we fought hard to make sure the guest was treated well.  We have always been advocates for our customers! 

Providing the best customer service we can has always been one of our core missions; it would be unnatural to everyone in the team to do otherwise.  The type of person who wouldn’t isn’t the sort of person who would ever have been employed and it’s facts like that which tell you how it’s easy to work at freetobook for so long.  We don’t have any “office politics” to contend with, unless you count someone putting the empty milk carton back in the fridge, and we all gel really well.  It makes for a happy working environment. 

As the market began to change, Iain and Craig saw the writing on the wall for hotel bookings and fortunately refocussed our energy in to a related but different field; instead of making bookings at hotels, we were going to provide independent hotels with software to handle their bookings.  The early days of freetobook saw me spend a lot of time on the phone with customers helping them understand the system and explaining that the system was free but that we would be adding chargeable products soon, and that it wasn’t a scam.  It was hard work!  The dev team worked frantically building up the system and I sat by myself answering calls & emails (okay, Iain and Craig helped, let’s not downplay their part in all of this!).   

The overall size of the team is almost directly responsible for my evolution from being alone in the customer service team to where I am now, as a Product Lead.   Back then I didn’t know anything that was “under the hood”, I knew what was on the screen in front of me and nothing else.  Each time something went wrong I had to interrupt the dev team and ask them to work out what was happening.  Eventually they grew tired of my constant nagging and questioning and started showing me where to search for answers, how to view the channel manager outgoing and incoming files, what the error logs meant.  I like being able to work things out for myself and as time went on I started questioning why we chose to do something one way instead of another way and started asking for changes to be made.  I also started trying to work out why any bugs reported by customers were happening before I passed them along to be fixed.  This sort of knowledge means a better experience for the customer too; I didn’t have to tell anyone that I would have to find out and get back to them, I either knew it or I worked it out for them!  I still do that to this day.  As time has progressed, I’ve edged my way out of the day-to-day customer service tasks and into the products and upgrades side.  Bridging the two sides of the company is a great experience as I not only get to keep up relationships with so many of our amazing customers but I also ensure that the feedback received on products is taken onboard (where possible of course!).   

In 2019, whilst considering how better we could support our customers, I spent a rainy Friday afternoon setting up a Facebook community group so that customers could ask general questions and perhaps support one another too.  I’m not really into social media personally but I can see how it is a great support tool.  I remember the day we hit 100 members in the group, I even held a prize draw to celebrate, and now we have a thriving community of over 2.5k!  It’s clear to anyone who uses Facebook though that it’s up to them who sees what and some important updates just weren’t being shown.  During a talk at Turingfest in 2021 I had a lightbulb moment about developing that community into a purpose-built community platform.  This would give us the opportunity to reach customers who don’t use Facebook as well as ensure that what we want to say is being shown to all.  It also afforded us the ability to build a searchable Knowledge Base to allow all our customers to find answers to as many questions as possible.  It took about a month of researching the various software packages, working out how they all worked and then finally selecting one and getting started.  It took many more months to write hundreds of Knowledge Base articles and make videos for each.   

Making our own help videos is another technology that we embraced and learned, and indeed are still learning.  I can’t say exactly when I started working out how to record and edit videos but I think it happened after I started embracing hosting webinars during lockdown… all of those webinars show the horror of being locked down and not being able to go to the hairdresser, and they are there for everyone to rewatch any time!   

Everyday in freetobook gives me something new to look at and learn, something new to embrace and I think that is why 18 years later I love my job more and more… oh yeah and as bosses go Iain and Craig ain’t bad!